MONTREAL - No one is more satisfied to see the Ottawa Senators back in the playoff picture than long-serving captain Daniel Alfredsson.
Last summer, the 39-year-old wasn't sure if he would return for a 16th season to a club that few picked to be much better than the one that had finished 13th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference.
But new coach Paul MacLean has the Senators playing perhaps their best hockey since they reached the Stanley Cup final in 2007.
The club is scoring goals and getting decent goaltending. Now Ottawa is even threatening to overtake the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division and grab one of the top three seeds in the post-season.
"I had doubts myself about how I would feel going into the season, but I liked the way everyone counted us out and didn't think much of us," Alfredsson said Wednesday as the Senators prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. "I can't say I thought we'd be here, but there was a chance.
"We knew we had to work hard to get where we wanted. That's one reason I said I would never leave this franchise. I still thought that I would have a chance to maybe get into the playffs. And if I did it would be unbelievable ??? to get that chance again to play in front of our home fans in a playoff game. That's what it's all about."
Alfredsson will likely be one of the few stars players who spend all of their long career with the same team. He joined the Senators in the fourth year of the team's existence in 1995-96, when they were still also-rans, and has seen them grow into a league power in the early 2000s only to lapse back to mediocrity before this season's resurgence.
Ottawa has not won a playoff series since losing to Anaheim in the 2007 final and missed the playoffs twice in the last four years.
Alfredsson admits he has wondered in the past what it would have been like to be traded to a contender. Then and now, his answer to that question is "no."
"I thought about it," he said. "When trading deadline came, nobody asked me about it because we were in a good position.
"If the only thing was to win the Stanley Cup then I should have approached it every year as 'which team has the best chance? Then I should go there.' Even now maybe I think 'does another team have a better chance and should I go there anyway, or is this where my loyalties are and where I'm going to stay?' I've said before, never say never, but I don't think it would have happened."
And if he decides to play again next season but the team struggles, he said he would still say no.
Ottawa, where Alfredsson has been captain since 1999-2000, has become home for the Gothenburg, Sweden, native. He is the Sens' all-time leader in games played, goals, assists and points. It's assumed that when he eventually retires, his No. 11 jersey will go up to the rafters at Scotiabank Place.
"I don't know how it worked out that way," he said. "It's like any relationship. You go through your ups and downs.
"I feel I've been very fortunate to come to a city and an organization like Ottawa and it's been a great fit for me professionally and personally with the family and everything. I'm really excited this year with where we are and where we're going. It's extremely satisfying compared to the last few years."
One player who has given extra jump to the Senators attack is his fellow Swede Erik Karlsson, a 21-year-old defenceman who has likely become a Norris Trophy candidate. Karlsson leads blue liners in scoring by a wide margin and has a chance to be the first defencemen since the mid-1990s to finish in the top 10 in the league scoring race.
"We've been winning a lot of games and scoring a lot of goals, so that's helped me a lot," said Karlsson. "There's still a lot of good defencemen out there. I've just been able to get the puck to (Jason) Spezza, Milo (Michalek) and Alfie a lot and that's helped me out."
Karlsson spent his first few months as a Senator in 2009-2010 living with Alfredsson and his family to help adjust to a new city and a new league. The gifted defenceman's presence seems to have breathed some youthful enthusiasm into Alfredsson at the same time.
And with the Senators looking like a team on the rise again, Alfredsson may get to enjoy the good times again. He has a year remaining on a contract that pays him US$4.875 million per season.
"I didn't know if I was going to play at this time last year, but it's been good," he said. "We came in with an open mind.
"I think we all worked really hard in training camp to set the pace. It took a few games to know our system, but once we did we've been playing extremely consistently."